The art of copy-editing:
right on or write-off?

Article Ten’s own Susie Dent takes a few minutes out from ‘Dictionary Corner’ to share some thoughts on copy that shows you care...


My first conscious typo-spot in the public arena was when I was around 7 or 8 years old. I noticed a roughly scrawled sign that had been mis-spelt and it made me question the sign’s authority in a way I’d not experienced before. I vividly remember the surprise I experienced on recognising the human error behind it. A sort of mild shock. Perhaps it was the beginning of the end of my faith in the all-knowing wisdom of adults.

Thankfully, I’ve grown up enough since then to realise that no one is perfect, and that is marvellous and just as it should be. But, as a professional copy editor and proofreader, although I do scan texts relentlessly for hours on end in search of things other people might have missed, and although I do get satisfaction from honing the written word, I don’t just do it in order to correct other people’s ‘mistakes’. Really – I don’t! I do it because a piece of writing sent lovingly into the world with a bit of spit and polish communicates something very valuable to its reader: that the producer of the text cares about what she or he is saying. Because what she or he is saying matters.

r u bothered?

But I may be shouting into the wind here. Whether you blame the passivity of spellcheck or the sacrilegious shorthand of textspeak, or the widespread democratisation of publishing through the Internet – which typically shows little care for details such as fact-checking and accuracy – the quality of writing we consume on a daily basis has eroded, and it’s not coming back into fashion any time soon.

With AI and machine learning all set to change the world of work as we know it, making many current roles redundant as well as opening up new opportunities, it makes you wonder what will become of the humble copy editor. After all, it’s already old news that the first (so-called) novel has been written by a robot; and the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 predicts a continued decline in demand for reading, writing and active listening skills over the coming years…

Are we destined for a downward spiral in the quality of our communication?

Will machines become the new ‘grammar police’? Or will our script eventually devolve to pure emoji (God forbid), as someone suggested to me recently, only half-jokingly?

There are plenty of bigger things than spelling and grammar to worry about, but there are also certain human qualities that can never be replaced by a machine, nor should they be. If we are to flourish through this ‘fourth industrial revolution’, we’d do well to recognise and nurture those qualities so as not to lose sight of them. That emotionally intelligent and imaginative ability we have to spot errors (and opportunities) related to nuance and context is one of them. The capacity to care about what we are doing and how we are communicating is another.